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Sullivan BOE narrowly approves budget plan

Rick Wagner • Apr 24, 2019 at 8:23 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s proposed 2019-20 general purpose school budget of $83.2 million, approved by the Board of Education in a 4-3 vote at a called meeting Tuesday, is about $880,000 less than the current year’s budget.

However, it seeks $1.6 million in renovation funds the County Commission cut from the school system in the current year’s budget, and it includes a page-long list of maintenance projects for those funds.

In addition, the proposed budget would take about $580,000 that had been going to repay energy-efficiency program bonds that have been retired and use that for expenses for the new Sullivan East Middle School, Sullivan East High School and Sullivan North High School.

In other action, the board voted to accept change orders for the new West Ridge High School and East Middle School and learned that members will be able to go over potential director of school candidates during individual Friday meetings in person or on the phone with consultant Wayne Qualls.

WHY THE NO VOTES?

BOE member Mark Ireson complained that the board first saw the budget proposal at the meeting without a chance for a thorough review and received only a verbal list of one of the charge orders. Ireson, Jane Thomas and Paul Robinson voted against that change order, with builder J.A. Street for West Ridge that had a net effect of $111,000 in savings but has some individual additions, while Chairman Michael Hughes, Vice Chairman Randall Jones, Randall Gilmore and Matthew Spivey voted for it.

“I think it’s crazy we are voting one something we cannot look at,” Ireson said of the $111,000 in savings change order.

Before the budget vote later in the meeting:

“This is two things we haven’t had any time at all to look at,” Ireson said. “We’ve got $83 million of stuff we have to get our minds wrapped around.”

However, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said the school board likely could not schedule a called meeting before the May 1 meeting of the County Commission’s Budget Committee, which was rescheduled from Wednesday.

The 4-3 budget approval vote was split the same way, although the vote was 7-0 on a change order spending $485,437 for rock change orders in the high school’s mass grading contract, which included $13,500 for “flowable fill” concrete mixture to address dropouts found at the high school site by making them stable. Structural engineer Steve Wilson said the area in question did not have to support the weight of the building and that a sewer line installation opened a trench that led water to infiltrate around existing rock formations in the karst terrain.

The board also voted 7-0 on removing $9,343 for a commercial washer and dryer from the high school building contract since the school system can buy the equipment cheaper and can avoid sales taxes the contractor cannot. 

WHAT ARE BUDGET DETAILS? 

The proposed budget of $83.2 million is $882,636 lower than the current year’s approved budget and would use $2.7 million in fund balance to go with $80.2 million in other revenues, although the goal would be to return all or as much of that fund balance as possibly by June 30, 2020.  If not, it would leave the fund balance at more than the Tennessee-mandated 3 percent of the total budget.

It also would use $250,000 in capital reserve for a turn lane for the new middle school and use $580,000 that had been going to the Energy Systems Group bond payback for new lab equipment for the middle school, a commercial bakery program for East High and the mobile cosmetology unit for North, so students there could get ready for higher-level cosmetology classes at West Ridge when it opens in the fall of 2021. West Ridge would take in all North and South high school zones and all or most of Central High, while East would remain the other county high school.

If the commission declines to bring back renovation funds, which it cut for the current budget year to help pay back $140 million in bonds for new schools,  Rafalowski said the board will have to make further cuts in the budget proposal.

The budget assumes a 2 percent loss in the city-county school funding split, an almost $400,000 increase in Basic Education Program funding and salary increases costing $952,000, as well as step increases and a half-percent pay raise. Health insurance rates are to remain the same. By attrition, it would cut 10.5 teaching positions, one assistant principal, two teacher assistants and half a nurse but add a grounds keeper for Sullivan East High and the new East Middle.

WHAT ABOUT THE DIRECTOR SEARCH?

Qualls will be available to meet privately with individual board members from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the central office and give their feedback on potential candidates for the job from which Rafalowski is retiring after nearly 42 years with the school system, including four years as director. As the board had previously determined, any potential director who meets qualifications and is an option by at least four of the seven members would be interviewed.

Qualls will tally the results and then the finalist list would become public, Hughes said. Hughes also said the board may reschedule its regular May 7 meeting and instead use that time to interview finalists, likely a group of two to four, or that the interviews might be held at a called meeting or meetings.

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